Home / Politics / News /  Turkey’s push to change how the world pronounces its name causes a flap

In part weary of bird comparisons, the country wants everyone to say ‘Tour-key-yeh.’ The rebranding has been a head-scratcher for many people.

Talking turkey is a pastime in the halls of government around the world. Yet what to call Turkey, the country, is something many can’t agree on.

In April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked the international community to recognize his nation by its traditional name, spelled “Türkiye" and pronounced Tour-key-yeh.

His government promoted the shift as an effort to instill national pride—and silence associations with the Thanksgiving bird and pejorative uses of the word “turkey."

An article published by the website of the state television channel cited “not flattering" comparisons to the bird. It added: “Flip through the Cambridge Dictionary and ‘turkey’ is defined as ‘something that fails badly’ or a ‘stupid or silly person.’ "

“Made in Türkiye" now appears on the country’s exports. Turkish Airlines greets passengers “Hello, Türkiye" in a cheery video. Presenters on the country’s English-language TV channel, TRT World, have flocked to the name, though occasionally stumbling over the guttural “ü" sound.

But it doesn’t always fly among think tanks, embassies, media or in the behemoth bureaucracy that is the U.S. government. VIPs sometimes mangle the name, and at times, higher-ups in the same offices aren’t on the same page.

In Washington, for instance, the White House, National Security Council and Defense and Treasury Departments have migrated to Türkiye for all official statements. The State Department, which typically green-lights such name shifts, remains undecided, according to conversations with numerous policy officials.

Things can get odd. Only one State Department statement issued from Washington appears to have used the term, a Sept. 10 reference to a visit to Türkiye by Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Statements that followed reverted to the anglicized version, Turkey.

On Nov. 2, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, tweeted “Kudos to Türkiye" for its help brokering a grain deal between Ukraine and Russia. The same day, the State Department avoided mentioning the country’s name in a readout of a call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the “Turkish foreign minister."

When the U.S. on Nov. 9 announced sanctions against partners of an al Qaeda financial facilitator, both the State and Treasury departments weighed in. In the Treasury statement, one of the targets was based in Türkiye; in the State Department’s statement, he was based in Turkey.

A State Department spokesman said: “It’s less important what we call our Turkish allies and more how we speak about them and the important work we do together."

Explanations for the hesitation vary. Many officials said the agency will likely follow suit eventually. Some at the NSC said people there weren’t even aware the State Department hadn’t made a change. “The umlaut is a pain in the ass to type," said another official, echoing many others, about making a u with two dots on an English-language keyboard.

And several noted there’s a sense the name shift was a nationalistic move to divert attention from the country’s economic woes ahead of next year’s elections.

The Turkish foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on the reasons behind the change.

Still, Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish-American political scientist at the Washington Institute think tank said: “If you want to get on Erdogan’s good side these days, you want to call Turkey Türkiye."

Such was the case with Sweden and Finland, which quickly adopted the change, hoping to sway Mr. Erdogan to support their bids to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, on a visit to Istanbul in early November, said, “Türkiye is a highly valued NATO ally."

France, by contrast, which has a tense relationship with Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party, continues to refer to “Turkey" in English and to use the French “Turquie" in official communiqués.

Even the home country’s government has been inconsistent, with Turkish embassies in Latin America still using the Spanish “Turquía."

Political upheaval in the U.K. hasn’t boded well for clarity on this particular matter. “Good discussions with President @RTErdogan. I welcome Türkiye’s agreement with Sweden and Finland," then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted in June. Days earlier, Liz Truss, his foreign secretary at the time and briefly his successor, said “Turkey is more important than ever" in a speech in the Turkish capital.

New York officials veered all over the map at a Turkish flag-raising ceremony in lower Manhattan last month.

“Long live Türkiye," said Manuel Castro, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Ibrahim Kurtulus, a Turkish-American community activist, echoed: “God Bless the Republic of Türkiye. God Bless America."

Then he welcomed Mayor Eric Adams, who went in another direction. Mr. Adams thanked “the people of Turkey." He praised “the spirit and the history of Turkey." The mayor was aware of the government’s preference but made a mistake in the moment, said a spokeswoman.

“Old habits are hard to break," Mr. Kurtulus later said in an interview. “The change will take some time, but it’s a start, and I’m glad it was initiated."

Mr. Kurtulus grew emotional as he recalled being taunted in childhood with chants of “Turkey Turkey, gobble gobble" from classmates on Staten Island. “We worked very hard to lobby Ankara to change the name," he said.

Throughout history, countries have occasionally rebranded. Macedonia became North Macedonia to resolve a dispute with Greece. The military junta that took power in Burma changed the name in English to Myanmar.

The move by Mr. Erdogan’s government is unusual. It involves the difference between what linguists call the “exonym"—the name for a place or thing in other languages, and the “endonym"—the local name.

His government isn’t changing Turkey’s name but demanding countries use the Turkish spelling and pronunciation rather than render the name in their own languages.

The French should no longer say “La Turquie," Turkish officials say. The Spanish should ditch “Turquía"—and English speakers should drop “Turkey."

When a reporter at a news conference tried to ask Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu whether “Turkey" would lift its veto on NATO accession for Sweden and Finland, Mr. Cavusoglu responded with a smile: “You mean Türkiye, right?"

“Yes, of course," replied the English-speaking journalist. “Should I repeat the question?"

Most U.S. media organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, have stuck to spelling the name the anglicized way.

Even many Turkish citizens, when speaking English, still say “Turkey."

“What use is it for us?" asked Murat Demir, a 49-year-old graphic designer in Istanbul. “We say ‘ABD,’ Americans say ‘USA.’ Germans say ‘Bundesrepublik Deutschland,’ we say ‘Almanya.’ Why try to impose Turkish name of our country on other nations?"

According to various historians, the Thanksgiving bird got its name sometime in the 1500s when it arrived to Great Britain from America via merchants, most from Constantinople, known today as Istanbul. Given the perceived origins, the British referred to the bird as a “Turkey coq."

“There is deeply held resentment towards the West by Erdogan and others that Turkey’s name is synonymous with a bird," Mr. Cagaptay said.

“The ironic part is that the bird is named after the country, not the country after the bird."

—Elvan Kivilcim contributed to this article.


Recommended For You

Trending Stocks

Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout